Post Road Magazine #18

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Elizabeth Albert: Paintings

Nelly Reifler

I met Elizabeth Albert in 1996 at a reception for a show of hers. It's hard to look at paintings at an opening. You can get caught in the body heat, the clump around the wine table, the chatter. Even in these conditions, I

found myself standing very still before each of her paintings for what seemed like a long time. I remember feeling both compelled and troubled by her work, which was a seductive combination. I wanted to get inside or behind or under these pictures—almost the way you feel when you suspect you could fall in love with someone you've just met.

The next day I did something strange—for me anyway; I returned to the gallery at a time I knew she'd be there. I had to see the paintings again, and I had to ask Elizabeth about them. I remember that even that first day we naturally gravitated toward the topics of process and formal issues, rather than focusing on any literal or narrative reading of her imagery.

Every time I begin a story, I am alone with the twenty-six letters of the alphabet, from which I have to build a new world that contains movement and meaning. I don't start out knowing the dimensions of this world; I learn them, through writing, only as necessary. I hope that the world will hold together for the duration of the story. But just for the duration of the story. A world that feels too stable can fall flat. Elizabeth does the same thing with her paintings: each one brings us into a scene, and each scene exists in some world that feels complete, yet temporary. She imagines a consciousness for each of her animal characters, who exist in spaces that are at once impossible and logical. The tension between these conscious beasts and their surroundings is powerful. Tension is by definition unstable. Perhaps this instability is necessary because Elizabeth's goal is not for us to admire her impressive skill with painterly illusion. In her artist's statement, Elizabeth says, "My intention is to dignify and document the crude, the error ridden, the addled, the gentle, and the violent. Sometimes the characters are cruel and ignorant, but they usually try to be kind, occasionally achieving heroic feats. Unfortunately, most often they are undersized, disabled, or too awkward to be of any use other than attending to their own immediate need."

Elizabeth is the youngest of four siblings; by the time she was eight, the closest sibling had moved out of the house. She has written of her childhood, "I lived in a tiny room in the back of the house where the radiators clanked and thumped in the cold. The walls were painted a hot and airless yellow, and at night the squirrels would come down into the hollow walls, murmuring and scratching. I could never remember whether spiders liked the dark or the light, so I sat for hours repeating aloud each possibility.... A little later, we lived in a small bungalow by a golf course in rural England. The birds there were too big for the trees." She went to art school, where she was taught painting in the strict tradition of the French academy. After receiving her BFA, she moved to Belgium (where she painted portraits for money and lived without hot water) and then Mexico (where she once happened upon an abandoned apartment block where people haphazardly cremated dogs). She returned to New York and got her MFA from Queens College. She teaches at Saint John's University.

She takes her influences seriously, and refers to them as she works. They include Philip Guston; Belgians Ensor and Brueghel; and preRenaissance Italians such as Sassetta and Piero. Albrecht Altdorfer deeply affected the work she's been doing for the past decade. In an interview with Katina Kontarakis, Elizabeth states that she "fell for his strange and eerie landscapes filled with 'wild families'—hairy people living outside of society in the wilderness. They were both pure and unspoiled and yet also monstrous. I loved that paradox."

Often when I visit Elizabeth and she brings out her newest work, my eyes well up, and my heart starts to knock wildly. The enigmatic animal characters, their innocence even as they self-mutilate or gently torture, the unearthly gorgeousness of the landscapes are all disarming, moving.

Over the years Elizabeth has trained me not to apologize for the way my language works. I'm not a painter or a critic, and I don't critique art the usual ways. I'll arrive at her loft, and we'll have some wine and chat at her kitchen table before moving into her studio. There I look at the world she's constructed on each canvas: I take it on its own terms. I often find myself saying things like "I think the one-legged horse's leg needs to be a little thicker to support its body weight" or "I like the diagonal of the wolf's body, the way it takes up so much space" or "the upper right part of the tidal wave doesn't have enough paint." Elizabeth, while refilling my glass might ask, thoughtfully, "What do you think of the flying possum?" I'll tell her that I love its translucency. All while I'm filled with wonder at the mysteries of my friend's mind.

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